This semester started with two weeks of online learning (of which today is the last day before students and teachers return to campus after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), so it’s been an unusually slow start to the already sleepy January term. However, that hasn’t stopped my music classes from listening to great music; indeed, we’re now covering what is perhaps my favorite period in the history of Western music: the Romantic Era.
While I adore Baroque and classical composers and their works, Romantic music builds upon the forms established in those eras, stretching and expanding upon them to reach new heights of emotional intensity and musical expressiveness. The music of the Romantic composers delights with its musical exploration of the supernatural, the mysterious, the Gothic, and the nationalistic.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that churches have taken these classics and, in an attempt to check the “contemporary Christian music” box, added unnecessary and musically-boring codas to them. This past Sunday, my parents’ church’s praise team was leading the congregation in a stirring singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful“—and then tacked on a needless extra chorus written in a modern style. The additional chorus was okay, but it paled in comparison to the majesty and tunefulness of the carol it amended. The church went from a lusty chorus of socially-distanced congregants to a few people mumbling along to the tuneless new chorus.
We’re back to distance learning today after a positive case of The Virus, and since it’s the day before Thanksgiving Break—historically the biggest blow-off day of the school year—my administration decided to play it safe and declare today a distance learning day. As such, I took the assignment derived from The Story of 100 Great Composers and ported it to my high school music classes. Those classes will share about their composers today.
One nugget of wisdom I’ve heard before is “if you want to learn something, teach it.” As a private school educator who taught pretty much every course in the standard high school social studies curriculum and a plethora of music courses, I can attest to the Truth of this statement. I essentially taught myself, for example, the highlights of Western philosophy from teaching a Philosophy course for many years (a course I very much wish the school would revive).
I’m shifting increasingly towards teaching music exclusively (though I’m still teaching a couple of American History survey courses), and teaching a Pre-AP Music Appreciation class has been one of the great joys of that transition. Years ago I created and taught a course called “History of American Popular Music,” which covered the early Tin Pan Alley tunes all the way through blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and beyond. This Pre-AP course is focused on the great works of Western music, going back to the medieval period.
Currently, we’re wrapping up a big unit on Baroque music. The Baroque style—as epitomized by greats like Bach, Monteverde, Corelli, Handel, and others—delights in contrasts. Just as Baroque paintings highlight stark contrasts between light and dark, Baroque music revels in sudden contrasts in dynamics. It also loves to play around with complexity, as any Bach fugue will quickly demonstrate.
The last composer in our unit is George Frideric Handel. Handel, a German-born composer, made a major splash upon his arrival in England in the 1710s, where he sought to introduce Italian opera to sophisticated London crowds. What was meant to be a temporary visit turned into over four decades, and Handel is interred at Westminster Abbey—a huge honor. It’s one of those delightful twists of history that Handel the German became one of the most English composers in history—and one of the greatest composers of all time.
This school year I began transitioning from teaching a blend of history and music classes towards focusing almost entirely on music. While I still teach a couple of sections of American History, my teaching duties these days consist primarily music classes.
One of the real joys of teaching music—besides the fact that it’s just plain fun—is to see students inspired to create their own music. I have been blessed over the years to witness the musical development of many students, and to hear some of their creations.
During our remote learning rehearsal day earlier this week, I pulled out some old concert footage to show my HS Music Ensemble class, a course that is entirely performance based. That class does not port well to a fully online format, especially to a livestreamed one, as latency is so intense that it makes ensemble performance impossible. Indeed, if that class goes to a fully online format, we’ll have to focus more on solo work and and music theory, which is what we did during distance learning earlier in the spring.
In watching that old concert footage, I was reminded of some wonderful moments in my school’s unorthodox music program’s history. It also reminded me of the power of teaching music to inspire the creation of new works.
I’ve received a handful queries about my statement that “this video sums up my entire musical philosophy.” Naturally, there’s a bit of cheek in that statement. My short answer is similar to the jazz musician’s (Louis Armstrong? Dizzy Gillespie?) when a lady asked him how to swing: “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” The video should speak for itself:
But I began digging into this video a bit more. What is this bizarre game show? When was it aired? How did Bruce Dickinson end up singing “Delilah”? It reminds me another video that “sums up my entire musical philosophy”—Jack Black’s appearance on American Idol singing Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”:
Fortunately, there are some scant details out there. The show was Last Chance Lotter with Patrick Kielty, an Irish game show that ran for ten episodes in 1997. The gimmick was that the show took losers from other game shows, gave them a lottery ticket, and anyone who had a ticket worth ten pounds or more could compete in the main game. Some of the money won would go into a pot for one random audience member to win.
I haven’t quite worked out how the musical numbers figured in, but the musical guest would essentially sing a song to add even more cash to the pot by spinning a wheel (that was transparently rigged—the audience knew the wheel was controlled, from what I can gather). That’s why Bruce Dickinson was on the show, and his performance of “Delilah” is one of the most spectacular musical renditions I’ve ever heard: mariachi horns, bouncing bassists, leopard-print suits, and Dickinson’s soaring vocals.